Democrats were headed toward regaining a majority of governors' offices Tuesday as they broke a 25-year Republican hold on Illinois and took back Pennsylvania.
The GOP, however, won the night's two marquee races. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush turned back a massive Democratic effort to unseat him, and Republicans ended Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's bid for Maryland governor.
As 36 states elected governors, Democrats captured offices in Michigan, Kansas, New Mexico and Tennessee. The victories boosted Democrats' hopes of reclaiming the majority of executive mansions they lost eight years ago. Republicans hoped to minimize the shrinking of their 27-21 edge.
Republicans kept New York, Texas, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Gov. Bush in Florida had extensive campaign help from his brother. Early in the night, President Bush called to "congratulate him for a big victory," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.
Townsend, a Democrat, was seeking to become the first member of the Kennedy family to serve as a governor. But she saw a huge lead early in the campaign evaporate as she lost to Republican Rep. Bob Ehrlich.
In Illinois, Democratic Rep. Rod Blagojevich defeated Republican Jim Ryan in a race that linked Ryan to the scandal-tainted single term of GOP Gov. George Ryan -- no relation -- who chose not to seek re-election.
Pennsylvania Democrat Ed Rendell, former mayor of Philadelphia, defeated GOP Attorney General Mike Fisher.
Republican businessman Mitt Romney defeated state Treasurer Shannon O'Brien in heavily Democratic Massachusetts to continue 12 years of Republican control.
New York Gov. George Pataki easily turned back a challenge from Comptroller H. Carl McCall, the only black ever elected to statewide office there.
In New Hampshire, Republican entrepreneur Craig Benson returned the governor's office to the GOP after six years Democratic control.
Incumbent GOP Govs. Bob Taft of Ohio, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Bill Owens of Colorado, Gov. Kenny Guinn of Nevada and John Rowland of Connecticut all won re-election.
Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman was in a tight race with GOP Rep. Bob Riley. Republicans saw Siegelman as vulnerable because of ethics scandals and budget shortfalls.
Early returns also showed a close race in Vermont, where the GOP-led legislature would choose the next governor if no candidate got more than 50 percent of the vote -- a real possibility.
The Republicans came into Election Day at a disadvantage, defending 23 of the 36 seats because of term limits and retirements amid painful budget shortfalls. Democrats were defending 11 seats, and independents were leaving office in Maine and Minnesota.
Ten women candidates battled onto the ballot this year from major parties, making it possible for voters to break the current record number of five female governors.
The losses of Townsend and O'Brien hurt those chances, though Democratic Kathleen Sebelius won in Kansas and Hawaii was guaranteed to elect its first female governor.
More than any recent year, this election brought a sweeping number of close races, including surprisingly competitive campaigns in Arkansas and Wyoming.
Most political observers said this year's races came down to two things -- timing and a bad economy. Incumbents usually suffer when budgets get cut and money runs short.
"Whoever's in control of the state is having trouble holding onto the state," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. With Republicans holding more offices, they will lose more, she said.